Techniques Re-Arranged: On the Sculptures of Asako Shiroki
Keisuke Mori (Art Critic / Curator, Vangi Sculpture Garden Museum, Shizuoka, Japan)
As for the abstraction that is consistent throughout all the sculptures by Asako Shiroki, we can point out this factor quite concretely, though it may sound somewhat paradoxical. In short, it is the fact that forms of furniture and utensils used in our everyday lives, such as chairs, bowls, and grids, appear in the work, but they remain only as partial elements. Their signification and functions, which are essential things associated with any tool, are kept indefinitely suspended by the imperfect, failed execution of integration in the name of wholeness. Her work, where anonymity of tools is implicit, wanders between craft whose essential purpose is "the beauty of use" and sculpture where realization of autonomous forms is intended. Although you may interpret this halfway attitude as negative, her abstraction needs to be understood in the following way: Through the anonymity of the tools deprived of their names, Shiroki's work succeeds in cutting open the world. If so, what does “her work cutting open the world” really mean?
The form of her work has proximity to those of tools, proximity of the kind for which equivalent amounts of skepticism and affinity are needed, behind which there is a story of how she has experienced several turning-points to achieve this, the clues of which are ubiquitous in the artist's texts. Initially, when she had only a visual and superficial understanding of the internal structure and components of tools, her direct observation of the furniture production process made her more physically aware of what they really were. Secondly, at some point she noticed that the way people use tools is continually renewed and determined in everyday life, and is described by the artist as "anonymous techniques." These two perceptions are complementary to each other, corresponding to the relationship between making and installing. Furthermore, the linkage between versatility of how tools create forms and that of how they are used must have critical implications in the work that Shiroki creates. The work pile and pile features repetition of bowl-like forms, which were made by imitating a proper production process of bowls, including the use of cherry trees. Here, through the repeated action of accumulation, it can be said that making forms and using forms are doubly realized, and their inseparably close relationship is newly built within the work.
Referring to matter and form, the contrary pair of concepts, M. Heidegger placed tools at the halfway point between objects and artworks. As is well known, Heidegger saw the grounds of Zuhandensein (ready-to-hand being, such as tools) in their "serviceability" and "reliability." In Shiroki's work, forms of tools are used in such a fragmentary manner that they may even seem used only as a metaphor. However, taking a route via Heidegger's refined analysis illuminates a certain aspect of her work. That is, autonomy of the forms of those dysfunctional tools. For example, a chair-like structure is installed on the wall at a point much higher than that of the human body, denying the act of "sitting" by displaying its back to us. (Or in a similar example, another chair is installed with an object positioned on its seat to interrupt the act of "sitting"). When it comes to objects that remind us of bowls, they lack the function of "containment" by, to begin with, having no hollow carved into them, or by being placed upside down on the floor. Those new forms created through dislocation of their functions, as the artist claims, make the emergence of a site of zero-experience possible, by wearing away the individual's memory and losing the association with their usual meaning. Primarily, repetition of forms, counted as a representative feature of her work, is aimed at functioning also as an “oblivion device” for not only the viewer but also the artist herself. By subordinating one's action to the system of repetition, one's self is worn down along with the materials. There, the artist's judgment of actions, which is usually required on a steady basis in the process of making artwork, is being indefinitely postponed. Shiroki’s re-encounter with the forms in the exhibition space is bet on this amnesiac paralysis of the artist's self.
Now, we can go back to the first question. If her work is a devoted attempt to create such forms that cut open the world, what may this suggest? Probably, what is latent is the overturning of the value of a certain aesthetic concept. In her work, different parts are accumulated so as to stand on the floor, or be propped up against the wall. In other words, her sculptures are exposed to excessive effects of gravity, while counting on the structured steadiness rooted in the repetitive and consecutive usability of tools. Here, contiguity more to the everyday is disclosed, through visualization of the heteronomy of gravity, which rules the space on the vertical axis, as well as resonance that comes from the doubling of the two repetitive actions of making and installing. It is this bi-directional stream of traffic between the institutional space of art and the everyday space, in addition to the deprivation of the meaning as tools, which results in a qualitative shift in the forms of her work. In this sense, it is quite impressive that Shiroki sometimes conducts the act of installing her work in front of an audience in the exhibition space. By disclosing the process of its re-composition, the essential temporality of the current state of the installation is visually presented, and the viewer can feel the dynamics of the networking of actions more vividly.
Possible destinations of such bi-directional streams, revolutionizing the conventional one-way traffic, are infinitely diverse. It may lead to connecting the human Unwelt (Jakob von Uexküll) and that of animals, where sharable forms, beyond the difference of our cognitive functions, are explored. Or, it may present unsteady states of forms due to the oscillation of the value concepts of "matter-form," which has long underpinned art so strongly. In any case, what Shiroki looks at are shapes of the techniques to aesthetically re-arrange sculpture, and consequently we look at such techniques embodied in the physical forms of her work re-arranged in space. In terms of renewability of techniques through the complicated network of actions, the forms of Shiroki’s sculptures, essentially speaking, are temporary and open for re-formation.
Translation: Yuki Okumura
Proofreading: Linda Dennis & Greg Wilcox
Objects Become Images: On the works of Asako Shiroki
We attribute a function to most objects, especially those that are hand-made – after all, the purpose of their existence is founded on their function. Whether table, chair or wheel: they all have clearly discernible functions. By contrast, phenomena call for elucidation. None of them is self-explanatory. Cloud or firmament, waterfall or night need to be embedded in a context creating meaning, which explicates their existence. Only those who contextualise phenomena can lend them significance. Taking a look at Asako Shiroki's art one logically supposes that her works tend towards a phenomenalising of objects, in particular of their forms. Everyday objects, often reminiscent of furniture, are transformed here into complex phenomena. It is true that we can still recognise some rudiments of function, e.g. in table legs with a frame, a chair whose legs have been amputated, or the geometric pattern of a pavement. But these object-rudiments do not stand alone in space; they are incorporated into larger constellations of additional elements. Shiroki's works take on the character of landscapes in which – through repetitive processes, for example – a metamorphosis takes place of familiar forms into phenomena of contrasts.
Special importance is granted to artisanal production in her art. The artist, who is trained in carpentry, produces many of the numerous elements of the work herself using oak or cherry wood. Even supposedly found, recycled “objects” reassembled in the form of an installation may prove to have been made especially for the purpose. Looking at photographs by Shiroki, one gains a sense of this production process. One of the photos shows a rather battered looking window, the blind of which is tilted on a slant inside its frame. Therefore it has lost its function, so to speak. A case for the artist and carpenter: not in the sense of repairing it, but to dignify what she sees artistically, and use it in the work Things are on the far side of the room (2014). In the ensemble of a standing frame and flat parallel planks, it is easy to rediscover the two formal elements of the photograph, supplemented by a ribbon laid loosely over them and a container standing some distance away. One sees that the original functions still possible to discern in the photograph have taken their final leave in Shiroki’s space-image. Instead, a kind of mental space opens up to the viewers, not content with the formal and material so-being of the objects. Classic-poetic, almost Zen-Buddhist interpretations are suggested: the frame is revealed in Shiroki’s work as a place of emptiness and a threshold. Slats from the blind lead through it in the shape of a path, like steps and stages, daily repetitions and exercises in advancement. Somewhat to the side, the container offers the prospect of a place of superfluity. And the ribbon follows this individual pathway like a thread of destiny.
The Presence of Absence
Savannah Gorton (Co-Director & Curator, Forever & Today, Inc. New York)
Upon initial impression, entering an installation of Asako Shiroki’s sculptures is like finding yourself in the company of half-finished furniture props, sparsely arranged within a deserted stage set. But rather than waiting for the use of a protagonist, the works in Shiroki’s exhibition On the Floor, Behind the Window, 2014, are devoid of the usual practical functionality associated with furnishings. Without the everyday use one might expect, her works assert themselves as independent objects enacting a subtle existence in their own right. Shrioki has envisioned these works both individually, and belonging together as a whole, while conceptually forming the boundaries of the walls, floor, and ceiling of the room.
Deftly intertwined, the familiar lines of Eastern and Western vernacular furniture are combined in Shiroki’s work—their derivation from wood capturing its essence. Evidence of Shiroki’s methodical labor is apparent in her meticulous application of “hozo-kumi,” a traditional Japanese wood joinery method of expertly fitting parts together without nails or glue. This process enables graceful construction achieved through minimal intervention, with an intuitive knowledge of the dynamics of wood and its innate flexibility. Compositional harmony pervades despite Shiroki’s penchant for abstraction, complimenting the gravitational balance achieved through her mastery of woodworking.
Both the natural and unnatural phenomena already present in the oak and cherry woods that Shiroki utilizes are a feature of her sculptures. Viewed more closely, the unfinished surfaces are riddled with small woodworm holes, occasional stains and knots, light tracings of pencil lines, and red crayon markings made from storage inventory. As opposed to disrupting the characteristics of her medium, Shiroki embraces its present state of materiality in an unaltered fashion.
In this manner, Shiroki’s interventions upon surfaces are subtle. Areas are imbued with a pale patina of buffed powder color using a complimentary palette of pastel cream and teal blue or a light dusting of dark grey or ivory spray paint. Here and there, textiles are introduced: a grey-smudged rope lays loosely coiled; cotton ribbons with rubbed pigment are neatly tied with bows and knots, connecting various sculptural components together. Cup forms make an appearance, with the inclusion of a hand-thrown stoneware vessel, serving as a foil to similarly shaped solid wood-turned objects. These objects focus our attention to their volume, or lack thereof–and where they are placed–balanced on an edge or solidly on the floor.
Although Shiroki’s painstakingly fabricated sculptures draw aspects of their respective forms from household items such as chairs, tables, and frames, what is most noticeable is that parts of their components are missing or omitted. Geometric concerns echo throughout the installation, as shapes are repeated from one work to the next, with the criss-crossing of lines, angles, and circles. The result is a series of works that are created through outlines of shapes, intended as framing devices coupled with empty spaces. Our eye is drawn to this inclination for absence, yet uncertain if it is highlighting a process of disappearing or revealing.
Given this, how may we approach the paradox of unsettling emptiness in the works? The answer is perhaps that Shiroki is directing our gaze to both what is there as well as what is implied by not being there. This brings to mind a sequence of open-ended questions posed by each sculpture, punctuated by the presence of absence inherent within the works. As a point of entry, the titles indicate where we should begin to look, as each describes not only the spatial location of the work within the installation, but its particular situation per se.
In On the frame, in the frame, 2014, a table-like structure stands beside its disembodied top, seemingly removed and hung on the wall. Taking the linear form of a 12-sided polygon, it houses an asymmetrically sliced section of transparent glass. Reminiscent of a drifting boat moored to a quay, it is secured to the table by a loosely hanging, yet tightly fastened length of ribbon. Deconstructed and repositioned in this manner, the tabletop is further mirrored by this “floating” picture frame. Placed at eyelevel, it requests reflection on both its impassiveness and partial containment.
Similarly, Things are on the far side of the room, 2014, calls our attention to multiple perspectives of vacant space. A rectangular frame sits upright on the floor like an open window, a ribbon slung over it. The end trails away, tracing a soft abstract line, almost as an interruption to our view. Despite the emptiness of the frame, it creates viewpoints from both sides, as there is no discernable front or back. The faraway “things” alluded to in the title may even be what we glimpse from a distance, through the frame, rather than in it.
The denouement of Shiroki’s line of questioning may be found in Between the ceiling and the floor, 2014. Momentarily viewed, an abbreviated staircase precariously balances on a stool in defiance of gravity–though we come to realize it is actually supported by a vertical banister reaching toward the ceiling. The direction of our interest is generated from the structure of the work, as our eye is guided upwards and downwards, but then comes to rest on a lasso of braided cord. Suspended, its loop configures yet another open space–an intentional ruse in the thread of thought set up by the work. Although at first glance a visual departure from the other sculptures in the exhibition, it fluently follows Shiroki’s discourse instead of dissolving into a non sequitur.
Shiroki has discussed “oblivion of self” as a central aspect of both the creation and experience of her work. This state of meditative unconsciousness may bring about a temporary lapse of personal subjectivity and/or awareness of objects and surroundings. The deliberate emptiness in Shiroki’s sculptures, and the repetitive framing of space as a site for the existence of absence, engenders a meditative location for wonder at what lies beyond the scope of perception. As Zen scholar Daisetsu Teitaro “D.T.” Suzuki may be quoted, “Emptiness which is conceptually liable to be mistaken for sheer nothingness is in fact the reservoir of infinite possibilities.” The idea of being or seeing what is “behind the window,” as Shiroki’s title of the exhibition suggests, hints at this unknown prospect.
Measuring Things: On the Work of Asako Shiroki
Nora Mayr (Curator; co-director, insitu, Berlin)
On the Floor, Behind the Window, the title chosen by the Japanese artist Asako Shiroki for her exhibition at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien, neatly encapsulated the combination of straightforwardness and narrative or associative elements that characterises her work.
Shiroki’s work conveyed the idea of a three-dimensional space for an undefined performative sequence. One of the works in the show, the installation In the grid – floor windows, 2014, consisted of a floating floor made of rectangle-shaped wooden tiles supported by small wooden cubes. On two separate spots of the structure, a chair and a stool literally seemed to grow out of the geometrical pattern. Its dimensions were based on slabs of pavements in Berlin, which the artist had previously measured, thereby transferring elements of the urban space into the exhibition space. By appropriating the dimensions and shapes of everyday objects such as furniture items, frames and pavements, Shiroki’s works radiate an immediate and moving sense of familiarity.
Much of her work consciously straddles the boundaries between art and craftsmanship. Shiroki often uses oak, a type of wood commonly associated with furniture, which in combination with her precise craftsmanship allows her to create work that could be mistaken for handicraft. She deliberately constructs objects whose dimensions and formal vocabulary reference our daily environment in installations of dazzling perfection. In comparison to design or artisanship Shiroki’s works are not made to serve a particular function but instead they act purely as formal condensations – shape, material, structure.
Shiroki’s work does not only distinguish itself by the skilful use of varying formal vocabularies, but also by the traditional techniques that its implementation requires – a characteristic equally manifest in On the frame, In the frame, 2014. In the foreground of this installation stood a round shape on wooden legs that vaguely resembled a table, or possibly a well, while in the background a window-like object reiterated the same shape on the wall. This form, which was reminiscent of a frame, was composed of tightly fitting pieces of wood held together by a ribbon running along its outer edge. In other words, the individual parts were held in shape merely by the tension of the ribbon – a perfect illustration of how using the natural balance of things allows the artist’s work to radiate a distinct sense of calmness. On the frame, In the frame, 2014 also shows another important aspect of Shiroki’s artistic language: the use of repetition. Shiroki considers repetition to be the possibility of forgetting the purposes of an item by distancing the material and the function from one another. Aiming to move beyond the initial purpose, repetition allows Shiroki to concentrate her work on material and abstraction over function.
When implementing her work, Shiroki attaches great importance to her working techniques, often using tools she has designed herself. She produces utensils that allow her to achieve the greatest possible precision in her work. Among other things, she has constructed wooden rulers that form an exact horizontal line, and special wood planes that she uses to achieve the smoothest of finishes. Shiroki’s handmade tools themselves are reflections of the materials and shapes she is working with. Working wood is an essential part in her production process, and rather than coercing objects into a given form, she lets the inherent properties of the material guide her.
Shiroki is an attentive observer of her environment, from which she unravels hidden rhythms and symmetries, analysing the arrangements and reciprocal relations of objects, which her works bring to the fore. She describes the development of her works as a process of “listening to the materials and objects” and getting to the bottom of the natural dynamics of forms and materials. Shiroki is interested in patterns of human behaviour in relation to objects and materials as well as in the physical phenomena inscribed in the form and structure of her works. The result of this measuring is a simultaneous re- and de-construction of our daily life spaces. In his novel Measuring the World, Daniel Kehlmann asks, “Without continually establishing one’s own position, how could one move forward?”* Similarly, Shiroki’s artistic practice could be seen as an act of measuring aimed at establishing one’s position. Her works effectively heighten our awareness of our own position in our surroundings while offering themselves up to further development. In the realm of sociology, for instance, space is no longer just defined by parameters such as length, height and width, but also by the active relations that we create daily between social commodities and people.**
The results of Shiroki’s visual research have been condensed into the photographic series Anonymous Techniques, ongoing since 2010. The fortuitous arrangements of forms, objects and materials in these images seem like staged installations of everyday life. If these photographs are to be believed, the whole world is composed of patterns. Our gaze is sharpened as we discover the fascinating geometrical structures emerging from stacks of bricks or the perfect balance that seems to underpin a constellation of objects around a water basin. In this sense Shiroki’s photographs could be likened to an encyclopaedia about the language of things, filtering the perceptual exuberance of things and revealing the quintessence of objects and materials.
* Daniel Kehlmann, Measuring the World, trans. Carol Brown Janeway (Quercus: London, 2007).
** In 2001 sociologist Martina Löw developed a “relational” model of space that defined the creation of spaces through the “arrangement” of living beings and social commodities. At the heart of this model lies the question how space is created in processes of perception, remembrance or imagination, and how these condense into a social structure. See Martina Löw, Raumsoziologie (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2001).